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She was enamored of American enterprise until a crooked contractor in cahoots with the sheriff swindled her. However, she concluded that elections were decided not on the issues, but on which side was better at mudslinging, mobbing, bribing, and dispensing the booze. American writers hoped such foreign caricatures would be put to rest when the beloved Charles Dickens arrived in Dickens did find Boston beautiful and refined, and he liked the easy equality among American men, albeit they talked of little besides politics and the price of cotton.

Then he arrived in New York and concluded that America was best described by swine, spit, and squalor. Pretense was the provocative theme that imposed itself on me. Americans boasted of their equality and prosperity. In sum, Jacksonian Democracy hallowed the Union, but divided Americans poor against rich, white against black, Protestant against Catholic, native against immigrant, tippler against teetotaler, Whig against Democrat, abolitionist against nearly everyone, and North against South against West. By , America was a society up for grabs. Democratic male suffrage made government a free market in power; the Constitution and Supreme Court decisions made the economy a free market in goods; the First Amendment made culture a free market in ideas; the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, made the streets a virtually free market in violence; and free immigration made all those markets theoretically open to the whole human race.

What then could imbue the nation with purpose? Did the freedom of citizens to pursue their own happiness mean the nation at large could have no common purpose? That was one source of anxiety in antebellum America; another was that some faction might corner the market in power and impose its purpose on the nation. But pretense provided the glue for a huge democracy constantly buffeted by demographic, social, and technological change. To remain united the American people dared not be too honest or uncompromising about their convictions, or challenge their myths about liberty, equality, and the Providential national destiny.

Pretense swept under the rug a multitude of sins while serving two very positive values, indeed two of the holiest tenets in the civil religion.

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877

The first was Union itself. So antebellum Americans compromised their convictions as deftly as they compromised interests.


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Democracy needed compromise; compromise needed pretense; so pretense prevailed. No one believed justice was done or truth served by any of these. Yet after each one Americans pretended their sectional divide had been bridged once and for all. By the s, the pretenses holding the country together grew so outrageous that Americans began to choke on the lies they told themselves and each other. The familiar evidence can be read as a gradual triumph of candor. All that did was to provoke civil war in Bleeding Kansas and goad Abraham Lincoln to challenge Douglas in debates full of explosive candor.

Finally, that religious revival triggered by the Panic of moved American leaders both north and south to confess truths so dangerous as to inspire secession and Civil War. It is tempting to interpret the Civil War as a triumph of truth, but alas, the evidence is just as compelling that truth neither caused nor resulted from our Civil War. The partisans on both sides expressed at most half-truths. What really triumphed was pride, and what really happened, it seems, is that anger, fear, and self-righteousness moved Americans to damn the evils on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line while ignoring their own.

But economic historians have shown slavery was increasingly profitable.

Southerners insisted most masters were gentle, but all left discipline of field hands to harsh overseers. They identified with the Hebrews in Egyptian bondage and prayed for an Exodus. Nor was the North of the s a haven of free labor and land, honest government, and virtuous citizens. Louis, and San Francisco were all run by machines that monopolized the immigrant vote, stole elections when necessary, and plundered the public purse. On the state level, Northern legislators gobbled up millions in stocks, bonds, and land grants from railroad promoters.

Southerners noticed, and feared that Union with the more populous, dynamic North must surely end in their own pollution.

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By Winter Kansas was a free state and the rest of the frontier organized into territories with no mention of slavery. Abolitionists condemned slavery in the South itself, but that did not cause secession—Lincoln repeatedly said he had no intention of disturbing slavery where it existed and no power to do so anyway.


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What did cause secession was honor and pride. Ever since the debate over Missouri, Southerners had weathered storms of moral abuse, being called evil, barbaric, violent, licentious, and un-Christian.

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877

Still, Southern leaders had searched for ways to remain in the Union with their honor intact. In secessionist editorials, only sporadically did editors complain about slavery in the territories, non-enforcement of fugitive slave codes, or economics. Rather, they almost unanimously expressed moral outrage over the hateful slanders made by corrupt, heretical, hypocritical Yankees. The South, in the eyes of the North, is degraded and unworthy. Unlike Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was never sure his cause was holy. But even if Lincoln had lived, it is unlikely that many Americans would have purged malice with charity after four years of unspeakable slaughter.

Reconstruction was half-hearted, pitifully underfunded, resisted by white southerners and resented by white northerners eager to get back to hustling in pursuit of their happiness.

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Accordingly, Reconstruction failed and African Americans remained third-class citizens for a century. But Yankees pretended otherwise. In the decades after Appomattox their orators, veterans, women, children, and brass bands gathered each year on village greens to celebrate the sacred war that crushed the Rebellion and wave the bloody shirt that purged America of its original sin and sanctified the nation to fulfill its millenarian mission as the last, best hope for mankind. Nor is that the least bit ironic. Democracy thrives on pretense, and the post-Civil War pretenses about democracy, a classless society, the melting pot, the frontier as safety valve, and opportunity for all to rise from rags to riches helped the nation immeasurably during the turbulent decades when the nation completed industrialization, assimilated new waves of immigrants, built a world-class navy, and embraced a Progressive Social Gospel mission to redeem all mankind.

When the Spanish American War began in , just 22 years after the collapse of Reconstruction, Americans were already prepared to launch foreign crusades in the belief they could do for the world what they were manifestly unable to do for their own conquered South.

Indeed, only a year after the war, Prof. John L.

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era by Walter A. McDougall

Barnum, and circus clown Dan Rice figure as prominently as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Henry Ward Beecher—a zesty, irreverent narrative that brazenly reveals our national penchant for pretense. A professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter A. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two teenage children. See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly.

Overview From its shocking curtain-raiser—the conflagration that consumed Lower Manhattan in —to the climactic centennial year of , when Americans staged a corrupt, deadlocked presidential campaign fought out in Florida , Walter A. Product Details About the Author. Average Review. Write a Review. Related Searches. View Product. Are Lobsters Ambidextrous? Ponder, if you will Has anyone ever seen a live Cornish game hen?

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